Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Filtering by Category: Talent

Business should be truly ambitious

I read two articles about ambition, risk, and innovation this morning. I'd like to share these articles and the thoughts they inspired about business's role in society and my own moonshot goal. THE ARTICLES

"The golden quarter: Some of our greatest cultural and technological achievements took place between 1945 and 1971. Why has progress stalled?" - Why was the post WWII period to technologically groundbreaking and why hasn't the trend continued? This article explores why.

"Google's Larry Page: the most ambitious CEO in the universe" - This is a profile of Google CEO Larry Page (who's a Michigan Alum, by the way) his approach to management, and his aspirations for Google & humanity.

Both pieces are more than worth reading. And as I said before, they helped me get one step closer to crystallizing the "moonshot" everything I do works towards.

But it also helped me better articulate my point of view about business's role in society. I'd like to share that with you first.


I'm an MBA at the Ross School of Business, and the new Dean has articulated how Ross is the school that creates leaders that make a positive difference in the world. The implicit assumption there, from my perspective, is that business should make a positive difference in the world.

I don't disagree with this (very much) as an outcome. What I disagree with strongly is the framing, because it doesn't emphasize what's really important. This framing misses the deeper point of ambition.

What I see now is that business should be truly ambitious. What I mean by that is business should create products and services for customers that solve their most challenge and most valuable problems. It just so happens that the most ambitious things are the ones that make a positive difference in the world. So I think it's a subtle mistake to advocate for business's purpose to be making a positive difference in the world, what really matters is for business to be ambitious.

If you do that, making a positive difference in the world is sure to occur. Notice however, that the corollary (if you advocate for making a positive difference, ambition is sure to follow)  is unappealing and untrue. Put another way, what's the point in making a positive difference if it's incremental and not ambitious?

Business shouldn't be about incrementally improving software or developing a slightly more differentiated laundry detergent. Business should do be doing things that are hard and profitable, not easy and profitable. Business should be doing ambitious things that are worthy of the sector's resources and its brightest minds.

Something that truly kills my heart a little bit is to see tremendously bright people join companies that put their talents toward banal purposes. If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, wasting a great mind on uninspired ends is a tragedy.

And that's what I learned, It doesn't matter if we mint business leaders who make a positive difference in the world if they aren't truly ambitious when selecting the problems they choose to solve.

As many of you know, I've had a number of qualms with business school. I think the root of my frustration is that at its core, it doesn't breed true ambition.


I think a moonshot - a transformative goal that far exceeds the possibilities of the present day - is something everyone should have. These moonshots are the goals that matter so much to you, you don't care if you fail when trying to achieve them. It's something that you want to take risks to achieve and want to connect with others around.

Moonshots are goals that evolve and become more clear as time passes. Here's my latest understanding of my moonshot.

In the past 100 years or so, organizations and management have been about control. Management has tried to centralize, streamline, and bring consistency to the organizational world. The way organizations treated people was like interchangeable parts in a machine.

I don't believe that management should focus on maintaining control anymore. Management should be about freedom.

I want to rewrite the playbook on management - from its purpose to its strategies to its tactics - so that it focuses on freedom, not control. This means rethinking a host of things, like leader-follower relationships, collaboration, cross-sector partnership, metrics, technology, strategy, and others.

My moonshot is to fundamentally change the practice of management so that every organization in the world is rooted in freedom and not control.


  • What's your moonshot?
  • Am I full of it? Is business truly ambitious?

Jobs pay a lot when they suck

I don't think a high salary necessarily indicates that a job is "better." Most of the time, I think jobs are high-paying because they suck. Of course, I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but, here's what I mean.

Let's say there's a dollar value, let's call it $I (for income), and $I is the average amount of money people in America need to have a pretty good life. Nothing super fancy, but something nice enough that the average person is happy with.

Now, why would anyone take a job that pays more than $I per year? After all, if you're happy with I, why bother doing something that requires more effort (which is presumably the case because you're getting paid more).

There are two types of reasons:

1) Because you're awesome 2) Because the job sucks

BECAUSE YOU'RE AWESOME You might take this job for more money, because you're valuable. Maybe you have a special set of skills and therefore, companies have to pay you more because of competition in the marketplace. If they don't pay you a premium, someone else will. You get paid more because you're awesome.

This is ideal, because you're not sacrificing anything to get higher pay. You're happy, and you are really skilled so you get paid more. Wonderful.

BECAUSE THE JOB SUCKS An alternative explanation for taking the job that pays more than $I per year is that something about the job makes it less desirable. Maybe it's because you have to work many hours, or the work is physically demanding. Maybe it's boring or worse, maybe it's not meaningful. Maybe it's humiliating or dehumanizing work. Maybe the job is difficult and you're likely to fail. Maybe the work/company isn't prestigious. Maybe it's stressful.

In this scenario, if the company doesn't pay you a premium you wouldn't want to do the job. You get paid more because the job sucks.

In reality, the wage we're all paid is probably a mix of both - being awesome and the desirability of the job. If you  have a high paying job it's worth asking yourself, and I direct this at my MBA classmates, is your job REALLY paying you a premium because you're awesome, or because the job sucks?


  • How much of our educational life prepares us for being awesome, and how much of it prepares us for dealing with stuff that "sucks?"
  • What careers do you think are the most desirable? How much does it pay? Does it seem high or low, why?
  • Are there other reasons why some jobs pay a premium?

The World Doesn't (Exactly) Need More Leaders

Lots of institutions - like schools, companies, pundits, etc. - talk about leadership to the point of dogma. At best, this is misguided. At worst, this is dangerous. What I find problematic is that these narratives imply that leadership is an end in itself. As in, you go to school to become a better leader. Companies, say they're trying to recruit their next generation of leaders.

Besides, I don't think "leaders" are what folks are really after. What they're really after is value. They want people to make things beautiful or make beautiful things. They want people to make their companies, communities, and customers better than they were before. They care about the value, not the means to create it (assuming it's ethical).

Leadership is merely a means to the end of value creation, but it's not treated that way. Leadership is heralded as an end in itself. With all the books, courses, degrees, and gurus you think, "I've gotta be a leader!"

I take this issue (I acknowledge that it's a subtlety) seriously because leadership without value creation is dangerous.

To be a leader, a leader needs followers. Ideally, people follow a leader because they are doing something valuable. That's fine.

However, when you place leadership above value creation (making things beautiful or making beautiful things) it incentivizes people to attract followers even when they aren't doing something of value.

When they aren't doing something of value, leaders trying to attract followers tend to do ugly things - coercion, deceit, exploitation - because at the end of the day, if someone who aspires to be a leader isn't doing something of value they have to make it appear as if they're doing something of value or force people to follow them.

Of course, it's helpful to have good leaders when trying to do something of value with a group of people. However, the point is not to be a leader, the point is to do something of value.

That's why I stand behind the statement "The World Doesn't Need More Leaders," because what we need more of is people who create value, regardless of whether they are "leaders". Leaders just happen to help create it sometimes. By making leadership a destination in itself, not only are we distracting from the true goal of value creation, we're incentivizing dangerous behavior.

The Risk-Averse Career Choices of MBAs

If I wanted to link-bait this post, I would've titled it "Are MBA's Risk-Averse Scardey-Cats?" I didn't do that, though, because this topic is actually serious if you think about it. I'm an MBA at Michigan Ross and many friends of mine are currently studying at Business Schools around the country. Almost invariably, the most highly-desired career paths after graduating from our "elite" MBA programs are Banking and Consulting.

Notice, that these two paths are professional services, more or less (especially consulting). In these careers, you don't have to deal with the masses. You're not on the hook for business results creating value for consumers. In other words, when you're at a Bank or a Consulting firm you don't have to take the risk of winning in the consumer marketplace, you just help your clients do that.

Oh, and you get paid a lot.

So what it comes down to is getting a big reward (gobs of money and "prestige") while minimizing risk (because you don't have to create value on the front lines in consumer markets). And that's exactly what business schools generally teach their MBAs to do, increase rewards while minimizing risk.

This isn't to say that consulting and banking aren't good career choices. I'm merely pointing out that our supposed brightest business students are largely funneling into careers that don't create value in consumer markets and that Business Schools are huge supports in getting them there.

Is that really what we want? Is that really good for society or even for "the market"?

Also, another question - does this mean that us MBAs are risk-averse scaredy-cats?

Millennials Matter Because Of Their Time, Not Their Money

There’s lots of talk about bringing young people to Detroit. To be honest, I agree with that. But there’s not a lot of talk about why it’s important to bring young people to Detroit. The story I usually hear is one of income. Young people can pay rents, go to local restaurants, patronize local businesses, and pay taxes to local governments. After all, the story goes, young people make good incomes and have few financial strings attached. Young people also have talent to work in local companies and the smarts to help them grow. In more ways than one, young people breathe life into cities and the ecosystems tied to cities.

All this is true, but I think it’s missing the point. The real value young people give to cities is their time, not their money.

As young people, we don’t really realize this, I think. I, as someone who wants to use his energy for public good for example, often become frustrated that I don’t have the money or influence to affect change in Detroit or elsewhere. What I forget about is how much time I really have compared to other people – especially compared to older people with lots of money and lots of influence.

Young People And Innovation The resource of time is not trivial, it’s absolutely core to growth in a city. Here’s what time allows young people to do:

Build Networks – developing relationships takes lots of time and energy if done right. There’s really no way around it. Young people have lots of time to cultivate relationships and they do. These networks do not only benefit the young people building them, it makes the city more efficient because thick networks move information and resources across the city more efficiently and with greater results. Young people break silos in ways that older adults cannot and don't have an incentive to do. (Power players in a network have an incentive to keep silos because it preserves their power. Young people have an incentive to break silos for the opposite reason – it allows them to break up concentrations of power.)

Try New Things – Young people have a lot of time to experiment, which is why it’s common to see innovative startups created by young people – they can blaze new trails easier because they can put in the time to figure out new, complex problems. In any company or city, young people always lead new experimental things because those young people have the time to mess around and learn. Because those learnings add up rapidly, young people can do amazingly creative things faster than people who are older.

Explore Ideas – Young people also have lots more time to “stop and smell the roses.” If they choose to, they can learn and explore and be inspired by new experiences. They can noodle on things and imagine the future because they’re closer to the mindset of children. Young people can be foolish because they don’t have families to feed. They can follow dreams because they have little to lose compared to people who are older.

You’ll notice that these three things: networks, experimentation, and inspiration are three fundamental components of innovation. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Intergenerational Collaboration Is The Key The way I see it is this. Older people have experience, resources, and influence. Young people have the time to build networks, try new things, and explore new ideas. To me this is the perfect match for creating innovation.

I firmly believe that intergenerational collaboration is absolutely essential if we want to innovate successfully, in Detroit. But to be honest, I don’t really see that happening today. I think both sides want to lead the other. Of course, this is my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in believing this.

This is also my opinion, but, I think we can do a lot more if we have intergenerational collaboration. The real kind. It'll just take both sides stepping out of the spotlight and focusing on working together.

Disclosure: I am part of the “young people” so that’s where my biases are.

Talent is Detroit's X-Factor (for entrepreneurship)

For the startup community to succeed in Detroit, our primary goal should be getting the best community of talent that we can. Talented people, not cash, will make or break the startup community in Detroit. --------


I think of Detroit's startup community as a school because how both work is similar. In both cases - startups and schools - the fundamental ingredient is the talent of the people in the ecosystem. Here's an explanation of the analogy:

In a school students take resources (books, stimuli, computers, etc.) and convert those resources into something valuable (knowledge: papers, grades, test scores, projects, etc.) with the help of talented peers (other students) and talented mentors (a teacher).

Startup communities are similar.

In a startup community, entrepreneurs take resources (information, money, space, labs, etc.) and convert those resources into something valuable (products and services: software, hardware, media, algorithms, etc.) with the help of talented peers (other entrepreneurs) and talented mentors (successful entrepreneurs, VCs, consultants, etc.)

The structure of both is the same - In any learning community, like schools or startup ecosystems, agents take resources and convert those resources into something valuable with the help of talented peers and talented mentors.

Notice that people are the critical ingredient. Talented people with few resources produce things that are much more valuable than great resources with people who lack ability. Resources don't become valuable on their own, people make resources valuable.

In a startup community, talent seems to matter for a few main reasons (I tip my hat to my entrepreneur friends - Stu, Scott, Max, Erik, Reid, Al etc. for helping me understand this over time.)

  • Getting a team - starting a company is really, really hard. You need a good team to do it, and if you don't have smart people around you, you're sunk. Moreover, once you get started, you need talented people to work for you. It's really hard to hire people from across the country, compared to getting good referrals from some friends nearby
  • Getting help - Like I said, starting a company is really, really hard. You need good people outside your company for when you need to solve a problem that nobody inside your company can figure out
  • Getting inspiration - Even getting to the point of a good idea isn't easy. People get inspired by talking to other smart people and learning things they never knew before

Talent will make the difference for entrepreneurship in Detroit. Indeed, it is our most precious asset.

For what it's worth, I'm not suggesting that the people here are dumb. There are actually a lot of smart folks, and I'm not so sure about the not so smart people. What I am suggesting is that there aren't enough smart folks here; we don't have a critical mass of really talented people.

I'm also suggesting that VC financing, incubators, and the like are NOT our most important assets.


There are only two ways to get talent - buy it, or build it. Detroit should probably do both.

Buying It

The idea here is offering incentives to get stars to come to you. Think of the New York Yankees. Stereotypically, this is what they do. The pay good players insane amounts of money to come to a team of stars. Their salary costs are unreal, but you can expect the Yankees to win games...and they do.

As you can guess, this approach is expensive. The startup community is no different.

To get stars (people with a lot of talent that have a higher chance of success) here, investors would have to take crummy valuations (i.e., take an equity stake in the company at a higher rate than an investor in another geography would have to) on those deals. If they don't take crummy valuations (or overpay in some other way), those star entrepreneurs will never come, because the talent in our ecosystem isn't yet as rich as those in SF, NYC, etc.

Here's the kicker though.

You have to overpay like crazy to get really good people, because kind of good people don't make a huge difference. If you don't get really good people into your ecosystem, you might as well have not "bought" that talent in the first place, because those almost-stars don't make the ecosystem better.

The idea behind buying talent is this: overpay to get star talent -> connect them to other people in the ecosystem -> others in the ecosystem benefit from their talent and get better.

Building it

The idea here is helping average people learn and grow at a hyper accelerated rate. Think of a boot camp exercise class at a gym. You come into it in poor shape and you do lots of reps of lots of different exercises. You, and the group you're in, get better faster because you learn from each other and push each other harder. Not everyone get better at the same rate, and not everyone gets more fit. But with a sufficiently large sample size and a lot of reps, some people will become beastly fit.

As you can guess, this approach takes a lot of discipline to commit to. There's a lot of failure and learning that happens. If you're applying this analogy to a startup community, you can't expect every company to make it and "get fit." You have to tolerate a lot of failure in hopes that some people will learn really quickly and become strong pillars for the rest of the community.

Here's the kicker though.

If you take this approach, you can't expect results right way. You have to invest in people learning (which means they won't make money right away, and they may never). And, you also have to stay committed to investing in this learning - even if it takes awhile - otherwise the results will never come.

The idea behind building talent is this: invest in failure and other things that help people learn quickly -> People get better a lot faster -> some people make it and some people don't -> the ones that do make it will make the rest of the ecosystem better


Here are a few observations and hypotheses for the Detroit entrepreneurial community:

  • Connected Networks Make It Possible - Either approach doesn't work unless there are connections across the entrepreneurship community and even beyond. These networks don't form effectively if they're not open. Which is why incubators kind of throw me for a loop - they're semi-private communities, and semi-private communities easily become elitist and siloed (if they're not actively managed not to be). Siloed communities, as we know, are really hard places to learn. I'm a much bigger fan of open meetups a la or Detroit Startup Drinks (full disclosure: a lot of the Detroit Startup Drinks folks are friends of mine). Semi-private and open communities are both important for different reasons. I just don't see as many open communities as I do semi-private ones and that's kind of unsettling.
  • You can't have your cake and eat it too - When trying to build talent, I see people falling fool to a fallacy. The people (particularly in the social sector) want to back winners, and fund people who will be successful. That would be sensible, if we already had a robust community of talent in Detroit. We don't. People investing in the entrepreneurial community here have to encourage failure and reflection, because failure is when the most learning happens. You can't build talent without failure. We don't have people who invest in failure (and the learning that comes with it). That's something we desperately need.
  • Buying talent - We haven't really tried this, have we? Stik was brought in from SF, and the guy who started D:hive was brought in from Chattanooga. I can't think of any other examples (please correct me). Why haven't we tried to buy more stars? Starting VCs and social investment funds are useless for us in Detroit if the capital isn't being used to buy talent or to build talent. We're don't have enough depth of talent to just expect results from our investments. I think we're wasting our time (and money) if we aren't investing in the best learning / talent development opportunities. Moreover, I get this feeling that Detroiters think that everything here has to be home grown and that the city can "go it alone" without help from the outside. I think that getting some interesting folks here from other places would be smart, and also pretty cool.

Especially because I've taken some strong stances, I welcome your pushback!

*Note - In this post I'm talking about the tech / high growth entrepreneurial community. Fort the most part, I'm not talking about social entrepreneurship / innovation or small service firms like restaurants, coffee shops, yoga studios, dry cleaners, etc.

I'd also like to shoutout to my friend Stu who explained a lot of these points in a way that congealed them in my head. The good ideas in this post are mostly because of him.

Two Higher-Ed Fallacies (which are near to my heart)

Let me break down two fallacies I see in higher education: The MBA Recruiting Myth Here's how the story goes. One thing to know about MBAs is that we obsess over finding a job.

Right now, the cost of higher education - an MBA is not excluded from this - is appalling. I will have close to $150k in debt by the time I graduate from the Ross School of Business, for example. This creates intense pressure to find a job, because if you don't have a job you can't pay off your massive amount of debt. Moreover, this amount of debt makes it difficult for anyone that doesn't have at least some cash saved up (which normally is the case for people who already have high-paying jobs or have a well-to-do family) from taking the risk of applying to business school - which by the way is costly...over $200 per application plus the cost of interview travel and GMAT prep.

Even worse, because of all the debt, most people are pressured to take low-risk, high-paying corporate jobs. A lot of folks I know don't see themselves making a career where they get a job out of school, because they don't want to work for a corporation or have higher aspirations, etc. The debt, however, handcuffs your to work for a larger company with a lot of prestige for awhile unless you're extremely risk tolerant and can fend off the social proof of your classmates who opt to work for Fortune 500 companies or prestigious professional services firms.

The people who benefit from the high tuition rates are the business schools (who are now justified in raising prices higher) and large corporations (who now have a captive pool of talent to pluck from that has less freedom of choice because of their debt).

Here's the fallacy though. What business schools do is bolster efforts to help students find high-paying corporate jobs. What would be a more elegant solution (which is difficult, of course) is to lower the cost of attending business school. This would allow people more freedom and bring in a more diverse group of people into business school anyway.

The Cut-and-Run From Liberal Arts Myth This one is more simple.

Lots of liberal arts majors (apparently) are having trouble finding jobs. The logic goes, that liberal arts majors don't have the same skills as their peers coming out of professional backgrounds (like business and engineering). As a result, the pundits say, we should have less funding go toward liberal arts programs and should instead funnel students toward STEM educations.

Let me first counter the notion that liberal arts students are less skilled than their professionally-oriented peers. It's false.

In my own experience I consistently find that liberal arts majors are more imaginative and are better communicators. They think more critically and better understand ambiguity (and customer needs). It's not that liberal arts majors have less skills they have different skills which are less tailored to entry level jobs. The skills that liberal arts majors have serve them well when they are leading organizations, not starting out in them.

Here's the fallacy. If liberal arts majors have valuable skills, we should not push people away from the liberal arts. Rather, we should help them build the brick-and-mortar skills (MS Excel, basic business writing, meeting management etc.) that their business and engineering counterparts have. This could be done through classroom training, co-curricular activities, career-prep training, or internship support.

I'm proud to say that my alma mater, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan is following this path of helping liberal artists bolster their professional skills. The school realizes both that the liberal arts are valuable AND that liberal arts majors need to supplement their skillsets. The school is working to do so in a number of ways. The method I support regularly is the LSA Fund for Student Internships, check it out.

The Point Often, institutions solving problems make interesting choices when choosing solutions. In this case, I think conventional practices are rooted in counterintuitive conclusions. Instead of helping cash-strapped MBAs find corporate jobs easier and pushing liberal artists to other fields, why don't we lower the cost of getting an MBA and implement programs which help liberal arts majors develop the so-called "practical" skills they are missing.

Those seem like much more sensible solutions that have higher long-term payoffs.

The Fallacy of Building Social Capital Efficiently

This thought should have probably occurred to me many months ago, but it did not. I was hanging out with two of my friends (and fellow Ross classmates) Ina and Janelle this past Friday. We did, roughly, the quintessential day one does with people who haven't really spent time in Detroit. First we brunched at Hudson Cafe, then went for a walk on the Riverfront via Downtown, toured the Detroit Institute of Arts, and wrapped up with cocktails at the Ghost Bar.

It was a lovely day.

Later that evening, I was able to grab dinner with another friend, Wayne, and we stumbled upon the topic of what it takes to build efficacy and strong relationships to the city and across the city.

We agreed that there's some role for formal institutions and programs: like panels put on by the Gilbert family of companies or tour groups.

But I realized that the real, enduring experiences are not the mass-produced, highly efficient, forays into the community sponsored by anything ranging from a corporate conglomerate to a tech incubator. No, what really builds Detroit loyalists is when newcomers are introduced to the city, personally.

That's how I was indoctrinated, and every "success story" I've ever seen of people engaging with Detroit has been the same. It takes a personal touch and more than an hour-long panel discussion or walking tour.

This is a lesson, I think, that applies more broadly when building social capital of any sort. Efficient, "at-scale" programs may be perceived as being cost-effective or "more bang" for our collective buck, but the TLC of an intimate introduction to a community is what lasts.

And that's what I think we need in our city, connections that last - between people and the city itself and interpersonally between people across the city's niche communities.

Of course, this sort of approach is hard to make a business case for because things that are time-consuming are also expensive. This sort of approach also precludes the organizer of a scalable connection-building program, from becoming a rainmaker that holds power because of his / her place as the gatekeeper in the center of the network. Power comes from holding the keys to the castle and being the person that makes an introduction.

When building social capital, however, aren't lasting relationships that take a lot of work more important than shallower relationships that are manufactured efficiently?



Is Social Entrepreneurship a Middle Class Opiate?

Tunde, a good friend of mine, raised an important question in response to one of my previous posts - Bow Ties, Crazy Socks, and Hip-Hop: Tactics for Successful Intrapreneurship - which I have been mulling over for the past two weeks. He posited: isn't social entrepreneurship just an opiate for the middle class? Though it's possible to dismiss this question as outlandish, I think it mirrors an important debate in the Social - X (fill in the "X" with impact, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, etc.) movement...who are social entrepreneurs really serving? Are they serving others or are they serving themselves?

Anyway, I'm glad Tunde brought it up because I think he's right. At very least, social entrepreneurship can be an opiate for the middle class, and that possibility merits preventative action to ensure that social entrepreneurship (or other Social - X's) exist for reasons broader than being an opiate for the middle class.

What I think Tunde means by opiate is that it's an externally introduced activity that soothes the anxieties of the user and distracts them from the difficulties of their reality. Even more extreme, I think he means that the opiate of social entrepreneurship distracts the privileged from the full extent of the issues facing disadvantaged communities. I'll let Tunde weigh in and will update this post with any remarks he adds. For now, this is the working definition of "opiate" I'll use throughout this post.

[Here's a placeholder for Tunde's response. I'll update this placeholder should be reply with any remarks.]

I have often questioned the intention of certain social entrepreneurs, especially those widely publicized in mass-media publications. There's something about the air of those folks which is arrogant and condescending instead of inquisitive and humble. Moreover, some of the innovations presented by social entrepreneurs seem to be surprisingly self interested or misaligned with the real, palpable needs that the intended "customer" actually needs. Here's an example of a misaligned need - as told through a recount of why Bill Gates is less than amused by Google's (and others') attempts to provide internet access to the global poor.

It is this behavior - serving yourself more than serving others - that I see as the hat tip for social entrepreneurship as an opiate. This is because not serving a customer's need shows that you're interested in soothing yourself than serving another. Maybe Social Entrepreneurs are interested in looking cool (which is entirely possible when you're looking to get press to satiate a high-profile funder, rather than depending on a customer's payment to perpetuate your existence). Maybe social entrepreneurs hate their corporate job and hope social impact will alleviate their need to do something meaningful or interesting with their time. Maybe they're just curious people who think social entrepreneurship will allow them to travel to interesting places across the globe. The reason for "opiating" themselves - if that's what they are doing - could be anything. It's certainly possible.

What's more important is that this "opiating" I've described is presumably harmful. Like I said before, the processes of selfish social entrepreneurship could distract from real, needed social interventions by conveying the perception that the needy are being served. Perhaps more importantly though, is the chance that the growth of social entrepreneurship is a symptom not of social injustice but the disengagement of most workers from more traditional forms of employment.

Let me explain. In some senses, social entrepreneurship could be an opiate because it makes social entrepreneurs feel good and/or helps distract them from the fact that high-minded social interventions are all that matters in improving social outcomes for the world's most disadvantaged. But the "opiate effect" could also be people trying to make up for the fact that they hate their jobs and feel disengaged from them. (Note, I don't think disengagement is a good metric, but it's the most easily accessible to make this point right now.)

I'd like to note, I'm not suggesting that all social entrepreneurs are selfish, and self-aggrandizing. I'm merely suggesting that it's very reasonable to think that social entrepreneurs use their craft as an opiate. Moreover, I'm suggesting that because there's a clear path to using social entrepreneurship as an opiate, and that using social entrepreneurship as an opiate might indicate a presence of harm, we should be intentional about alleviating that harm.

I think there's at least one simple way to prevent social entrepreneurship from becoming an opiate for the middle classes: have real, authentic experiences inform efforts to pursue social entrepreneurship. In my limited forays to deeply understand social ills, I've found that  - by experiencing the "front-lines" - it's not only informative, it's also humbling. Without understanding real, front-line needs, it's very easy to have a ivory-tower-esque solutions which are well received at cocktail parties (and well intentioned) by those who have no idea what's really going on in the lives of real people. That's where the disingenuousness fixes itself - by trying to understand the issues of real people (being "close to the customer", if you will) it's much easier to take effective, authentic intervening action.

Here's the rub, though.

The larger, and I suspect more transformational, opportunity to improving both employee and societal welfare is to give people ways of making an impact in their corporate jobs. That's why my focus is starting to shift from social entrepreneurship to social intrapreneurship. Through social intrapreneurship you have more resources to do good and you can generate more social returns that way. It's just not as sexy to talk about.


But enough of my opinion, what do you think? Does anyone even reject the premise of the question? I'd love to hear what you think.

What Business School Hasn't Taught Me

After reading a reflective and inspiring post from one of my friends and classmates about what 4 months of business school has taught her, I found myself doing the opposite. Instead of reflecting on what I've learned, I've been reflecting on what I haven't learned. For what it's worth, I'm not necessarily expecting to learn these things in business school, I merely catalog them here as a way of encouraging myself to learn these things on my own. Here are the three biggest gaps I can think of:

1. Structuring Unstructured Problems

Something that has been surprising about business school is that most of the business problems we study are already neatly summarized - whether it be in the cases we read or in the projects that are outlined by clubs who sponsor consulting projects. What I've found to be excruciatingly hard in my professional life (whether it be at work or volunteering) is that the most difficult part of any project is getting it off the ground and defining what it should be. This is precisely the exercise that business school eliminates from the problem solving process in cases, community consulting projects, or other challenges.

Defining problems takes a keen mind, discipline, experience, and many other strategies and attributes. It's hard to do generally, and even harder to do quickly, effectively, and cheaply. This is one of the things on my list that I would've expected business schools to emphasize. Instead of learning to "deal with ambiguity," we're learning to deal with ambiguity in predefined contexts and archetypes.

2. Understanding he responsibility that comes with the education provided by a top 10 business school

At my school, and presumably other top 10 schools, we're not strangers to the fact that we're going to a world-renowned business school. I've heard more than once, for example, that we're in the top .1% of all students studying management worldwide. Our institution implies that we are being groomed to be some of the world's most capable business leaders.

But what is the responsibility that comes with the purported power than many of us will have to influence the study and practice of management? Do we have obligations to advocate for fairness and responsibility? Must we think at all about the health of an industry and do we ever need to put the needs of that industry or the needs of society before that of the firms we are stewarding? What are the virtues we must exude as business leaders?

Sure, we have to take one required ethics or business law class, but this response seems to have a base rate bias. If ethics and responsibility matter more when you have power, shouldn't ethics and responsibility be more core to our academic experience than having a single class about it? Not to sound tired with a comic book cliche, but doesn't great power - that we will supposedly have - come with great responsibility?

3. Raising the ability of those who have not cultivated their own talents

One of the very strong realities which was tough to understand when I started working is that different people in the "real world" have different skills and abilities*. Not everyone has the had the opportunity to cultivate their talents as much as others. Consequently, some people aren't as capable as others.

In college, and even high school, I was surrounded by extremely talented people - this is a consequence of having privilege, I get that. But that's not what every organization and every team is like. Talent is spread disproportionately across our companies, institutions, and society, which means that some teams don't have very much talent. The chance that I'll be surrounded with an all-star team for every challenge I ever have is unlikely. Because of this reality, I think it's basically essential to learn how to help others raise their own abilities and cultivate their talents.

There doesn't seem to be any acknowledgment of this reality in business school. Even if it is acknowledged, this is something we don't really get the opportunity to learn about and deal with because we're not often around dysfunctional organizations. On the contrary, the organizations that the school chooses for us to work with on action-learning projects are handpicked so we can avoid dysfunction! In the instances where we work with dysfunctional organizations, presumably by accident, those stints only last a few weeks. This short time horizon makes it easy to work around problematic individuals, rather than work with them.

* - When I say this I don't imply that people are stuck being less talented than others, but that different people are at different stages of their own development. There also could be valid reasons that they are more or less talented in a given discipline, some reasons may even be outside their control.

Wrap up

Most of you reading this know that I attend the Ross School of Business. Most of you don't know that I've had a really difficult and interesting time adjusting to business school. I still think it's an exceptional school (with exceptional people, especially the faculty and staff). I present this merely as a way to reflect on my experiences thus far and hopefully improve upon them.

What's worse, however, is that I hardly think Ross is unique in this regard. From reading about and talking to people at other "top" business schools, the more I think the sorts of problems I suggest are endemic to business schools themselves. If that's the case, we either have to acknowledge my concerns as irrelevant, transform the pedagogy of management, or accept that the topics I've presented are things we business students have to learn on our own.

Focusing On Michigan's Brain Drain is a Miss

The conversation about brain drain in our state is common and (sort of) well researched. This entire discussion, though, is problematic.  Averting brain drain via direct programs is the less effective (and probably more expensive) strategy. Creating strong communities and vibrant cities is a better course of action. Breaking down the issue

Check out this chart below. Give it a look over and then I'll explain what I am trying to convey. A quick definition - the way I "talent performance" is this: talent performance is the product of talent quality and talent quantity --> Talent Quality x Talent Quantity = Talent Performance.

Brain Drain vs. Talent Development


These axes are representations of the level of talent performance in Detroit and the State of Michigan more broadly. The bigger the bar, the better our talent is performing and the better off we are with regard to talent. For discussion's sake, let's say the top graph is the current level of talent performance. The baseline level there is represented by the dotted line.

The middle graph represents brain drain. Basically, in brain drain people leave the state, which lowers our overall level and quality of talent. These departures decrease the level of talent performance in the state, hence the smaller bar. The distance between the two dotted lines is the effect of the brain drain. Now, as people are leaving the state, lawmakers and business leaders are trying to respond by wooing talent to prevent them from leaving, or wooing talent outside the state here.

This is a reasonable strategy, except that it's a foolish one. Wooing talent is very expensive. You have to give departing talent lots of resources and you have to 'wine and dine' them, so to speak. You have to invest lots of money in programs and you might even have to subsidize their wages. All this is very pricey.

What's worse is that all this time and money spent on wooing talent doesn't really have ripple effects to the rest of the citizenry. If you woo someone to Michigan by paying them more, for example, it doesn't make a neighborhood in Detroit directly better, the only person that benefits substantially is the person who was wooed. The dollars you spend don't have effects on other things to make other parts of society or other people better, in a meaningful way. And, if you spend money to woo someone, that person may never be fully satisfied unless you keep wooing them which burns even more of hole in the state's pocketbook. Just like subsidies for other products and services, once you provide a subsidy, people start to expect it.

The bottom graph, demonstrates what happens when creating an environment  that develops talent and gives it the space to grow on its own. Said differently, this is a representation of what happens when you make communities better and make cities more vibrant. By improving the environment for talent, the talent that is already here gets more effective and performs better. The baseline level of talent performance increases; the bar gets bigger without more people needing to be here. Moreover, when you create a great environment, people come here on their own. People want to be part of excellent environments so they find their way here because they see opportunity, prosperity, and happiness. You don't have to woo them with one-off programs or compensation packages. This is much cheaper than rolling out the red carpet to bring people to Detroit.

Make no mistake, building communities and making cities more vibrant isn't cheap or easy in the absolute sense. In fact, it's probably expensive and really, really hard. But it's still better than wooing talent in an ad-hoc fashion because the dollars spent to make cities and communities better has all sorts of unrelated positive effects. The people in the community probably become happier if their community develops. There's probably lower levels of crime. People are probably more educated and involved in government and other aspects of civic life. By building communities and making cities more vibrant, the dollars spent provide returns years and years later. The people being wooed to come here are definitely NOT the only people who benefit substantially from the effort. On the contrary, when you build communities and cities, the whole community benefits.

Here's the takeaway: we should be focused on creating a great environment for talent by building up our communities and creating vibrant cities instead of trying haphazardly to prevent brain drain at high cost. That's ultimately what will be more beneficial for the city and state in the long run. Trying to combat brain drain directly is expensive, and it might not even work.

Moreover, this is possible - saying, "it's too hard" or "we don't know how" is a poor excuse. The work I was part of at the Center for the Edge is a great piece of research explaining the framework for thinking about how to create innovative, performance-improving environments. Also, look out for a report coming through from Detroit Harmonie soon. I can't really discuss it yet, but it's cool stuff.

Let's get serious about building great communities instead of wasting our time on conventional wisdom of attracting talent solely to prevent brain drain. Quite literally, if we build great communities and vibrant cities talent will come. So let's focus on that.


Holler at me with stuff I should rehash. This is a pretty intense topic.